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Warner Bros. brings out the big guns with its Batman: The Motion Picture Anthology 1989 - 1997, a four-disc Blu-ray monster box of the previous wave of Batman pictures that began with socko successes by Tim Burton and ended on a less stellar, but still profitable, plane. The disc set is also available in standard definition, where the exhaustive extras (WHV claims 18 hours' worth) fill eight DVDs.
It's hard to find too many fans who still prefer the old William Dozier TV series from 1966; we don't understand why it's still missing from home video. I was in junior high and I can say that it was a major craze for at least two or three months, with the Neal Hefti theme blaring over AM radios. The media went gaga over its "new" discovery, a kind of neutered Camp that basically meant tongue-in-cheek humor and intentional kitsch.
"The Dark Knight" changed all that with a decree that comic heroes need to be dark and brooding, a cross between film noir and Edgar Allan Poe. A flair for amusing morbidity must have been what led Warners to the doorstep of the wunderkind Tim Burton, an art school overachiever who turned unlikely ideas like Pee Wee's Big Adventure and Beetlejuice into hipper than hip hit movies. Burton brought high style and killer design skills to the 1989 Batman, a very nervous production with a confident director at the helm. Fans were concerned when Burton nominated his Beetlejuice colleague Michael Keaton as Bruce Wayne, closet crimefighter, and wondered if their sacred DC comic book franchise would come down with an acute case of the cutes, Tim Burton- style.
That's not what happened. Warners' marketing suits did an amazing sales job. Batman may have been the first movie where a studio leaked that a trailer was going to be premiered before another movie. I remember going to see another show, I believe Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and seeing the crowd go nuts as the curtains opened on a shot of Batman's bat-plane flying in a gray sky. The teaser couldn't have been 90 seconds long and seemed hastily put together, with very patchy audio. When the camera trucked in to Jack Nicholson as the joker, the crowd whooped so loudly that it didn't matter what audio was on the track. The Batman signal came up to a chorus of cheers, and Warners surely knew that they were home free.
Batman broke house records at Grauman's Chinese. After the first weekend the studio ran a TV spot made of four or five aerial shots of empty beaches, empty streets, empty ball parks, with the question, "Where is everybody?" The payoff was a final shot of the Chinese theater swamped by huge mobs of people coming to see Batman. Ah, Hollywood.
Burton put together a stylish first installment, with a camera that seemed to relish prowling through dank caves and over black-on-black metal and rubber. Using restraint, Burton's Batman isn't wall-to-wall action scenes; Sam Hamm and Warren Skaaren's script is character driven and funny. The rigid-looking Batman suit of armor must compensate for Michael Keaton's lack of an imposing presence, but the actor arches an eyebrow magnificently and underplays dark obsession quite well. Burton seemed to want to avoid repetitive fistfight scenes (the staple of the old TV show) to the extent that Warners made him stick a few in here and there. Kim Basinger is a cozy love interest for the secretive Bruce Wayne, while Burton surprised fans by making the English star (often associated with horror films) Michael Gough into a classy Alfred, the butler.
Onery gangster stereotype Jack Palance is swept away by Jack Nicholson's Jack Napier, who becomes The Joker through an unpleasant encounter with a ricochet-ing bullet and a vat of chemical waste. Bleached albino and graced with a grotesque grin, Nicholson channels the ghost of James Cagney in White Heat to come up with appropriately jarring schtick. Several Joker tirades end with Nicholson strolling off stage, laughing himself silly; we get the feeling that Burton just let the actor run with these scenes.
This Batman has plenty of style. It looks terrific, with a Batmobile that might be a cross between a rocket powered drag racer and the monster from Alien. The moody filmic architecture mixes visions from films like Metropolis and Vertigo; and this may be the only film to cop an action concept from 1941, when an airplane is shot down and crashes into a city street. Best of all is Danny Elfman's alternately moody and bombastic score. When the Batmobile zooms down a dark road blowing clouds of leaves behind it, Elfman's music swoops into an exhilariting sub-theme. Symphonic scores were becoming scarce in the late 1980s, and this one elevates Batman a good four or five notches higher on the class-act scale.
Batman shows signs of being rushed, with an odd animated effect here and there that doesn't work very well. We were told at the time that the rock music by Prince was a last-minute addition. Prince's cues work well enough in the disturbing sequence where The Joker vandalizes a full museum of masterpieces, but there appears to be a serious tempo mismatch in the big parade and money giveaway finale ... the editors must struggle to make Nicholson's arm movements hit any of Prince's musical beats. I'll guess that Danny Elfman intended a quirky circus march for that parade.
1992's Batman Returns sees Tim Burton and Michael Keaton coming back for more, this time with a bigger budget and bigger ambitions. It's a triumph for Burton. The entire picture is an unending special visual or makeup effect, but superior designs and comedy pacing keep us from suffering stimulation burn-out. This time around Batman must cope with a double menace. Danny DeVito is Oswald Cobblepot, a monstrous abandoned offspring raised by penguins in the Gotham sewers (?), and who cooperates in a crooked scheme with industrialist and store owner Max Schreck (Christopher Walken, borrowing the name of the German actor who played Nosferatu.)
Michelle Pfeiffer is Selina Kyle, an oppressed administrative assistant that Shreck pushes out a window. Selina survives with a radical personality change, and takes on the identity of Catwoman -- complete with skin-tight patent leather catsuit -- to wreak her revenge. Bruce Wayne dates Selina (who at least doesn't sleep with him on the first date, as did Kim Basinger's photojournalist) and has the best dialogue line in the series. When Alfred brings up the subject of security, Bruce fires back a reminder that, in the first movie, the butler just took it upon himself to bring Basinger into the Bat-Cave and tell her everything!
Batman Returns has an unfair reputation of being unnecessarily nasty, but I think that Burton found a rich, consistent groove of guignol. Mayhem is dished out in all directions without becoming action padding, and two out of three bad guys are sympathetic, to different degrees. Selina is a hoot. Daniel Waters and a returning Sam Hamm give her delicious, sexy dialogue but avoid most cat-astrophic cat puns a la Julie Newmar or Lee Meriwether. Danny DeVito is appropriately grotesque, biting off people's noses and groping his campaign workers with equal delight. Christopher Walken holds up his end by being a thoroughly hissable villain with style and stature ... only Bruce Wayne sees through his plan to make money by secretly draining power from Gotham's power grid.
This time the effects department made use of digital CGI (reportedly composited on film) to augment many effects, notably a novel "march of the penguins'. Tim Burton never chooses easy films to make, and Batman Returns is one technical challenge after another. It's a comedy, but sufficiently dark and twisted to deflect comparisons with the old series. An occasional visual joke might poke a bit of fun at the franchise concept, but the characters don't.
Tim Burton moved on to other projects, returning to the caped crusader franchise only as a producer for 1995's Batman Forever, directed by Joel Schumacher, a stylist with a patchy career: The Incredible Shrinking Woman, Flatliners, Falling Down. The consensus is that Warners wanted to brighten up the next Batman, due to whining about Batman Returns being unsuited for tie-ins with McDonald's Happy Meals, etc. Without the strong guidance of Burton, Batman Forever takes off in a different direction, with an entire new look that could be described as Disco Mysterioso. Much of the movie is splintered into faster cuts and fewer master shots, with the camera forever pushing in, spinning and darting about. There's also a heavy emphasis on shots once considered insert cutaways. The result is a movie filmed like a TV commercial, with the kind of wham-bam pacing that soon becomes exhausting.
Unlike the Burton pictures, the Batman concept is treated as a joke. The very first deadpan line from Batman (now a dead-faced Val Kilmer, his dimpled chin doing all the acting) is a lame one-liner about getting drive-thru food. It's as if the line was planned to be used in a later tie-in TV commercial. Batman's cave, his car and gadgets no longer attempt to be even remotely plausible, and the action scenes (endless punchouts) are mostly forgettable.
What Batman Forever does have is over-the-top villains. Fresh from The Mask, Jim Carrey puts his best moves into a big, showy role. His nerd scientist Dr. Edward Nygma isn't all that interesting but he's almost perfect as The Riddler, a sarcastic, swishy, slimy dude in green suits who likes nothing better than to needle Batman. Carrey's gyrating, teeth-gnashing and precise line deliveries are almost exhausting to watch; which isn't always a good thing. To avoid being lost in Carrey's wake, Tommy Lee Jones must amp up his Harvey Dent, the "dualistic" thug Two-Face. Personality wise, Jones has something Carrey lacks, a basic lovability that makes his work a lot easier. They strike a reasonable balance.
Bruce Wayne's personal interest this time around is split between Nicole Kidman's Dr. Chase Meridian, sort of a romantic accessory, and Chris O'Donnell's Dick Grayson, who of course ends up joining Batman to become Robin (the Boy Wonder). Like Carrey, Kidman plays her role with cold precision and comes off as a sharp-tonged concession to intelligent female characters. For an alternative we're given plenty of quality time with a pair of villainous henchwomen - Vanna White types, Sugar and Spice (Drew Barrymore & Debi Mazar).
O'Donnell's Robin brings up an issue strongly associated with the Schumacher Batmans, and that's their purported homoerotic subtext. Subtext probably isn't the right word, what with the constant fetishistic visuals of rubber suits (with nipples, no less), car-commercial cutaways to details of vehicles as well as costumes, and a general design philosophy that isolates these musclebound heroes in hazy dark spaces cut up with laser lighting suitable for a '70s discotheque. When street thugs are needed, Batman Forever paints them in day-glo colors like extras from a KISS music video. Critics have been going after the supposed aberrant sexuality in costumed superheroes ever since Superman comics arrived, and there's no avoiding the usual blather about men choosing to live together to fight crime and secretly preferring each other's company. Batman Forever's focus on motorcycles does sometimes remind us of Kenneth Anger, so there's something to this; but the fact is that it's just cultural baggage associated with the Schumacher films' visual style.
Batman Forever is filled with elaborate effects scenes that just aren't that distinctive. The story bolts from confrontation to confrontation, with the origin story of Robin sandwiched in wherever it will fit. Val Kilmer is just a blank as both Bruce and Batman, as if he doesn't know how to approach the role except as a shallow send-up. What fun is to be had comes from watching Jim Carrey and Tommy Lee Jones behaving like they're on the stage of a wacked-out variety show. The two are so compelling, they make the awful dialogue work.
This brings us to 1997's Batman and Robin, the fourth and last of the series. Here the franchise doubles back and simply becomes a lavishly appointed rehash of the old TV show. "Guest villain" Arnold Schwarzenegger (Mr. Freeze) even gets top billing over the new Batman, George Clooney. Nobody gets out of this one alive. Clooney's detractors have been wagging this show in front of him for ten years, while the usually ultra-cool Uma Thurman is ineffective as the poorly conceived Poison Ivy, sort of a female Swamp Thing character positioned to slam ecological activists. Both Thurman's Dr. Pan Isley and Schwarzenegger's Dr. Victor Fries are turned into themed mutants by scientific accidents, and attack Gotham City for different reasons. Freeze is torn between world destruction and curing his wife Nora (Vendela K. Thommessen), who is kept in suspended animation. Poison Ivy is bent on exterminating mankind, so as to leave the Earth a safe place for her beloved plants to grow.
Meanwhile, Wayne Manor welcome's Alfred's niece Barbara Wilson, (Alicia Silverstone, fresh from Clueless) who eventually becomes, ta da, Batgirl. WIth typical mood-breaking witlessness, Batman deadpans that she might want to give herself a more PC name. The instant acceptance of Batgirl is pretty much the last straw for the franchise's credibility; there's really nothing much of note happening. Schwarzenegger's makeup is interesting (he looks made of blue marble) but his nifty freezing gag gets old fast. Poison Ivy lugs around a muscleman helper called Bane (wrestler Jeep Swenson) and uses poisoned lips to kill unlucky men captivated by her pherome-laden perfumes. Bruce and Dick squabble over who's got dibs on Ivy but the scenes are pretty pathetic. Even worse is a meaningless street motorcycle racing scene to set up Barbara as a potential Batgirl ... complete with hoodlums in (yawn) day-glo paint.
The best thing in #4 is a subplot in which Alfred (Michael Gough, the only recurring actor in all four films besides the pitch-perfect Pat Hingle) is dying from the same malady afflicting Mr. Freeze's wife. Our positive associations with Gough go way back to the 1940s in films like The Small Back Room, The Horse's Mouth and Horror of Dracula, and the honest sentiment we feel for the Alfred character is the closest the Schumacher films come to being real movies. The last we heard, Mr. Gough is 95 years old and still going!
The Blu-ray set of Batman: The Motion Picture Anthology 1989 - 1997 is on the pricey side but contains a heck of a lot of well-produced content. Those 18 hours of extras include full commentaries, an ongoing docu on the history of Batman in all media and detailed featurettes on stars, characters, and designs for vehicles, costumes, cities, and special effects. All the music tracks have their own mini-docus, and deleted scenes are included where available. At least one music video is on each extras menu, which fills an entire HD screen with small print.
The extras are by and large both entertaining and substantial; when John Dykstra talks about the effects for films number 3 and 4 he's very clear about the changing attitude brought about by digital tools. Most of the stars are interviewed from numerous angles, with Schumacher defending his pair of features even as Chris O'Donnell skates the issue by saying that they were spaced a bit too close together. Tommy Lee Jones is notorious for being uncooperative when asked to analyze the movies he's in; the featurette editor succeeds in turning a Jones non-remark into a button line, even though the actor basically says that "the duality of his character is obvious, and there's nothing more to say!"
Warners doesn't fuss with the presentation frills that accompanied ultimate editions of 300 and I Am Legend. The four Blu-ray keep cases come in a simple box that opens like an old pop-top cigarette package. It's a great set; the only grumbling I've heard is that only the first Batman Blu-ray is available singly, and that collectors wanting the superb Batman Returns must buy the less desirable (to some) later pictures.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
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